GETTING USED TO DYING, translated and edited by Martha Avery, focuses on Zhang Xianliang’s harrowing experiences over the last forty years. In those forty years, Zhang had come close to being executed by the Communist authorities. During the long years he spent in labor camps, he saw many other Chinese killed. Even though he was spared a physical death, Zhang still became a victim of a psychological death. The oppression has scarred him forever. In spite of all that he has gone through, though, Zhang has continued to write. In GETTING USED TO DYING, Zhang himself is the central character. The novel moves back and forth in time. In some chapters, the protagonist is referred to as “I,” while in others Zhang becomes “he.” This is a distraction, but it does not diminish the ultimate power of the prose.
Because of his standing as a writer, the protagonist is allowed to travel abroad during the 1980’s. Zhang does not embrace Western freedom as his salvation. His ability to write is also stifled by the decadence found in capitalist countries. Because of the need to be brave in the face of a repressive regime, it becomes impossible for the protagonist to relax and live with purpose in the West. He does find himself using women for sexual release in an attempt to overcome his brutal past. It is impossible for him to really love, though. The ability to love was taken away from him during his labor camp years. Zhang concludes that he must continue to struggle as a Chinese citizen.
GETTING USED TO DYING is more a noble statement than a fully realized novel, but Zhang must be commended for what he has tried to express. What he has been through is almost impossible for anyone born in the West to comprehend fully. GETTING USED TO DYING presents a poignant glimpse of an agonized world and the tortured choices it forces its inhabitants to make.